It was cold on the tarmac at the Stratton Air National Guard Base Tuesday morning, the kind of cold that seeps through the bottom of your shoes and makes bare hands clumsy. But the nip in the air was nothing compared to the weather that will greet the members of the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing when they step off their LC-130 aircraft in Antarctica four days from now.
Two planes departed from the base early Tuesday for the 11,000-mile trip, and two more will be on their way today.
For 24 years, these missions have supported the National Science Foundation’s research in the Antarctic by transporting supplies and staff to field camps across the continent and to the South Pole Station.
About 120 members of the New York Air National Guard will be deployed to Antarctica throughout the support season, which runs from October to February, when the weather is relatively mild and daylight is plentiful.
At the United States Antarctic Program base at McMurdo Station, the current temperature is “probably only minus 15 or so,” estimated Capt. Daniel Urband of Gansevoort, copilot of one of the planes that took off Tuesday. A 21⁄2-hour plane ride away from the station, at the South Pole, temperatures are probably hovering around minus 45, he estimated.
“That’s the lowest temperature we can operate at in and out of there. It can be minus 100 at the South Pole during the wintertime, but right now, it’s spring coming into summer,” he said.
Capt. Daniel Marchegiani of Ballston Spa, a pilot for one of Tuesday’s flights to Antarctica, described the landscape there: “You look out and everything’s white — snow-covered mountains, the sun’s gleaming off the ice and off the glaciers. It’s a really impressive picture,” he said, noting that although magnificent to look at, the environment can be deadly.
The LC-130 Hercules aircraft that Marchegiani is flying on this mission is a mammoth machine. It stretches 97-plus feet in length and has a wingspan of more than 132 feet. It’s equipped with skis that allow it to land on snow and ice, and it’s the only type of aircraft in the United States military capable of doing so.
Piloting the days-long flight to the far-off, frigid destination is no more difficult than piloting a standard flight, except for one thing, he said.
“You get out over the ocean and then you’re really maintaining a close watch on your fuel burn because your options are limited out over the middle of the ocean. There’s no place to divert,” he said.
Taxiing on ice and snow requires some skill, noted Lt. Colette Martin, a public information officer for the base who has participated in four missions to Antarctica.
“They can’t steer with the wheels because the wheels aren’t down, so they have to use differential power on the engines in order to steer the plane,” she said.
The flight deck of the LC-130 contains four comfortable-looking seats and a jumble of more than 50 gauges, along with levers and steering devices. Behind it, the cargo hold is like a warehouse, cold and industrial, with a line of red jump seats backed up against each side of the fuselage. In the middle of the plane, not far from the flight deck, are four narrow, black, bunk-bed-style cots made of mesh. Beyond them is the cargo — parts for a crevasse detection system that will be used to detect giant cracks in the ice, so planes know where it’s safe to land.
Also on every flight are spare aircraft parts.
“We bring extra propellers and an extra engine each year to make sure we have all the parts we need to fix these aircraft down there,” said Martin, who has worked on planes’ fuel systems while in Antarctica — no small task, since all of the work is done outdoors.
The cold temperatures require the liberal use of generator-powered heaters. Propellers must be heated for about an hour before the engines are started to ensure that the oil isn’t so thick that it won’t move, she noted.
Humans also need to worry about keeping warm. Each mission participant is equipped with a cold weather gear package to be used in the event he or she gets stranded and can’t heat the aircraft.
“We have what they call ‘fat boy pants.’ They’re basically down pants with Gore-Tex on the outside and a down parka with fur and a hood, and all the cold weather gloves and tents as well,” Urband said.
The Air National Guard crews will deploy for between 30 and 60 days and will work in 12-hour shifts to cover 24-hour operations six days a week. They will work a half-day on Sunday.
Marchegiani sees the mission as a race against time.
“It becomes a very high operations tempo — constantly flying, flying, flying, trying to get the mission done so they can do the research they need to do because come February, most of all the science research shuts down,” he said.
Tuesday’s trip began slowly, with one massive propeller being switched on at a time, until all four whirled so fast they looked like shadows, and the deafening drone of the engines vibrated through the bodies of those standing nearby. The first plane lumbered along the runway looking about as likely to fly as a mastodon, but it picked up speed as it taxied toward the autumn-colored hills in the distance and took flight with surprising grace.